Thursday, 22 November 2012

NBN: National Interest vs Political Interest: Lessons from the Railways

What National Broadband Network Australia has from 2020 forward will be a Political Decision: whom the electorate returns to Canberra in the 2013 election.

If Abbott/Turnbull get to implement their NBN, they will become the most reviled figures in Australian History in 25 years time. To serve their very minor Partisan Political Interests, the National Interest will be sacrificed and we'll be left with a technical and regulatory situation that will make the current mess positively benign, even superlative. Telstra, now described by Turnbull's fellow MP, Paul Fletcher, as "a monster", will be even more powerful and incapable of being restrained.

What Abbot/Turnbull are promising for fixed line services for the next 100 years:
  • (current) Telstra copper-analogue Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)
    • and direct Telstra ADSL services.
  • (current) ULL copper-analogue POTS from Optus and other ISP's
    • and their direct ADSL services.
  • (current) Optus/Telstra HFC-DOCISS cable Internet
  • 3G and 4G mobile wireless data networks for the disenfranchised.
  • NBN-ADSL @ 12Mbps for 75%
  • NBN-VDSL @ 25Mbps for 25%
  • NBN-direct Fibre
All this alongside the current NBN Co (v 1.0) rollout:
  • GPON Fibre @ 1Gbps
  • Fixed Wireless @ 12Mbps
  • Satellite @ 12Mbps
It won't just be a Digital Divide based on geography, it will be much, much worse: the haves, have nots and cannot-get-anything-decent everywhere.

We know from the Optus/Telstra HFC overbuild that if the Coalition ADSL/VDSL NBN is rolled out beside the current GPON network that they both will do much worse. The 

Now, I’m just going to say something on the NBN. You’ve all heard me speak about this a thousand times. It’s almost becoming tedious repetition but firstly, we the Coalition see ubiquitous, affordable, very fast broadband as a bedrock requirement for a successful digital economy. And a successful economy, full stop. [emphasis added]
Australian Railroads provide a perfect example. Once set, technical standards do not get changed by Politicians: it is always "too hard, too expensive":
  • Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have narrow gauge: 3' 6" 
  • New South Wales, standard gauge: 4' 8½"
  • Victoria, broad gauge: 5' 3"
  • Until 1962, trains between Sydney and Melbourne had to unload and transfer all passengers and freight at Albury.
  • Until 1970, there was no standard-guage railway from the East Coast to Perth: all freight had to be unloaded and transferred multiple times. To get anything, passengers, freight or animals, from outside Brisbane to the other Capitals:
    • Narrow gauge to Roma Street, Brisbane (QLD Central Station).
    • Transfer to Standard gauge terminal in South Brisbane, across the river with no direct rail-link.
    • Standard gauge inland to Sydney, then Albury.
    • Transfer to broad gauge to Melbourne, then South Australian border.
    • Transfer to narrow gauge for Adelaide, Perth and Alice Springs.
    • For Darwin, transfer to truck in Alice Springs.
  • The "Ghan" stayed narrow gauge on its original track until upgraded for the Adelaide-Darwin rail-link in 2000, despite being promised by Politicians for over a century.
  • New South Wales is held hostage by its century old 1500V DC electric train network, part of the reason its been slow to electrify its network outside the Sydney-basin conurbation, and contributes to making its rail services expensive.
    • Queensland went directly to high-voltage AC. More power, cheaper, further reach, more controllable, lighter and faster rolling stock...
As voters, we get just one chance to get the NBN "right" - which is simply defined: What would everyone want as an NBN in 2050?

A: One fixed-line infrastructure that's cheaply upgradeable to new technologies as they become available.

By even floating a competing plan for the NBN technology, the Abbott/Turnbull Coalition is signalling very strongly that they are more than willing to commit Australia to a Digital Nightmare Future in the pursuit of their Political Interests.

We have already seen both the Coalition and ALP demonstrate their penchant for favouring short-term Political Interests over the National Interest by allowing Telstra to be privatised without being Structurally Separated. Both parties are at fault here, but for my money, the Coalition as the people to actually do the deed (full privatisation) are the most culpable, with the most to explain.

In 2050, will anyone thank Mr Turnbull for saving $10B in construction costs of an NBN and imposing a gargantuan millstone on the Australian economy?? I think not.

There's a lot riding on this: One fixed-line network technology is the right number for the future of Australia's Digital-driven Economy.

If the Coalition don't want a GPON-Fibre NBN now, they should put the National Interest ahead of their own Partisan Political Interest and do nothing, not compound the situation and lock us into an ungodly mess for the next 50-100 years. The decisions of the Howard Government suggest they will put short-term Political gain ahead of everything else.

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